Finding the Best, Local Food Near You Just Got Easier

Food is making big headlines, and it's about time.

In a year marked by rising food prices and riots throughout the world, we've seen what happens when the reality of our energy, climate and water crises collides with trying to feed a planet.

As Vandana Shiva writes in her newest book, Soil Not Oil, "The era of cheap food and cheap oil is over." Add to this changing precipitation patterns, melting glaciers and increasing drought from climate change, and we have a recipe for disaster.

Michael Pollan has warned the next incoming U.S president, "What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through history, will find yourself confronting the fact -- so easy to overlook these past few years -- that the health of a nation's food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention."

While Barack Obama may have his hands full, the rest of us need to be thinking about our plates. Interestingly, one of the ways to start doing this would be to stay right where you are -- in front of your computer, that is. While technology may not always have been the best companion to agriculture (think biotech), the Internet has emerged as an incredible tool for planning the future of food. A Web site called the Eat Well Guide is hoping to help people make good decisions about what they eat and how, with a few clicks of the mouse.

As Bill McKibben points out, "It is undeniably odd, and lovely, that one of the most important parts of our food system -- a little behind rain and sun and seed, but not so much -- are the new digital tools that allow us to bypass the big advertisers, the mega-chains, the junk peddlers and instead find the myriad other people growing, processing, cooking and eating actually delicious food."

The site is for people interested in food that is "good, clean and fair." As the Web site describes, it's "a free online directory of thousands of family farms, restaurants and other outlets for fresh, locally grown food. Originally a database of sustainable-raised meat and dairy producers, its listings have expanded to include farmers markets, CSA programs, partner organizations, water-conscious ratings and vegetarian eateries." Here are four important things you can do on the site:
  • Find good food: You can not only find great local food, but also have get a map to help you get there.
  • Customize your choices: You can save listings that you like in an online notebook and use it to create your own guide to share with friends.
  • Support the movement: You can help farmers, co-ops and small businesses by suggesting that they be added to the list.
  • Tune into the blogosphere: Find out what's going on in the sustainable food world at the Green Fork blog.

As you can see, the Eat Well Guide is no ordinary database. It was originally developed by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and later partnered with Sustainable Table and launched in 2003 along with The Meatrix. But since then, the Eat Well Guide has expanded with a new look and vision that would make Google proud. Not only is the site easy to navigate and loaded with good information, but it's packaged really well, too. And there are several great functions.

If you're going on a road trip, you can leave your tattered copy of Dar Williams' Tofu Tollbooth at home. By entering the start and end address of your trip into the mapping tool on the Eat Well Guide, you can get not only your directions, but a list of all sorts of great places to eat and shop for sustainable food along the way. You can also filter your search by categories like bakeries, bed & breakfasts, caterers, CSAs, farmers, farmers markets, educational centers, restaurants and more.

No longer will you have to worry about eating high-processed and unhealthy food on the road. And there are other perks, too.

"Finding food that tastes of a place is one of the easiest ways to learn about where you are and connect with the people who live there," said Allison Radecki, a graduate of Slow Food's University of Gastronomic Sciences. "Isn't that the root of why we travel, after all -- for the chance to discover the flavor of a place? And what better way is there to experience local flavors then by supporting and savoring local foods?"

Even if you're not traveling, the guide is helpful at home. You can search by the city you live in, or a region -- like Long Island Wine Country or Vermont Cheese Tour. You can also create a personal guide based on your own preferences and interests. You can use categories, like the ones from the travel guide, and then cross that with specific products you may be interested in, like sustainable seafood, produce or turkey. And then you can also cross that with a particular method, like biodynamic, grass-fed, no hormones, free-range, organic and more. So, for example, if you're looking for some free-range turkey in the San Francisco area, the search comes back with nine restaurants, 37 stores and one place for online shopping.

One of the other great tools on the Eat Well Guide is its seasonal food guide. The site says, "By purchasing local foods in season, you eliminate the environmental damage caused by shipping foods thousands of miles, your food dollar goes directly to the farmer, and your family will be able to enjoy the health benefits of eating fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables. Buying seasonal produce also provides an exciting opportunity to try new foods and to experiment with seasonal recipes. And it simply tastes better!"

You can click on any state in the United States or any province in Canada on the map, and you'll be linked to a Web page that lets you know what produce is in season. For November, the choices are obviously a little more limited, but there's still great stuff. If you're in New Mexico you might be enjoying leeks, red chiles, sweet potatoes, turnips, beets and pears. In Iowa there are snap peas, spinach, Brussels sprouts and carrots right now. Over in Virginia you can try green peppers, broccoli and apples; and so on. In British Columbia, well, the pickings are apparently slim this month, but at least you can save room for Christmas tree season in December.

The Eat Well Guide is also way ahead of the curve in recognizing the importance of water in our food system and the health of our planet. You can search its many guides for water-conscious businesses and restaurants. "Water is the next big issue we're hoping to activate people on," said Destin Joy Layne, the guide's director. "We wanted to flag and highlight those taking the next step, like restaurants that no longer serve bottled water and farms that keep in mind water pollution."

Here's the criteria for water:
  • Restaurants: do not serve bottled water, only serve water when it is requested, or have taken steps to reduce water use throughout the establishment
  • Stores: do not sell bottled water, serve as a tap water filling station for customers with reusable bottles, or have taken steps to reduce water use throughout the establishment
  • Bed and breakfasts: do not sell bottled water, serve as a tap water filling station for customers with reusable bottles, or have taken steps to reduce water use throughout the establishment
  • Butchers: do not sell bottled water, serve as a tap water filling station for customers with reusable bottles, or have taken steps to reduce water use throughout their establishment
  • Farmers markets: offer foods produced on water-conscious farms (see below), do not sell bottled water, and have fountains or other tap water sources for customers with reusable bottles
  • Farms: use conservation methods to reduce water use, or take special precautions to prevent chemical or waste runoff from their fields

Eat Well Guide has worked closely with Food and Water Watch and its Take Back the Tap campaign to end bottled water use. And soon, Layne says, it is hoping to expand the guide to cover all drinks, so people can see not only where their water comes from, but also their coffee, wine, beer and the like. They also hope to incorporate their eating guide with other green events, historic societies, local musicians and conferences across North America. And if you're interested in more about how technology is connecting the many partner organizations involved in its work, you can read its free online book, Cultivating the Web (PDF).

"The core of this work is really making the connections between food, our community and technology," said Layne. "And it is about making it accessible to people who haven't had access to this kind of technology before or been a part of these issues."

In reality, the site is as organic as the food it advocates. It is constantly changing each day, with updates and new entries from the site's readers and partners. It is also growing, with each new farmers market or locally rooted business that is able to connect to people seeking out exactly what they are producing. And, like a healthy garden, it thrives on diversity.

"Across the country, the ubiquitous Syncs truck has left a trail of culinary devastation in its wake, homogenizing the fare at most of the few remaining locally owned establishments," said Tom Philpott, food editor at and farmer. "The Eat Well Guide pinpoints the holdouts, the renegades -- the restaurants that source from their food sheds and in doing so, preserve delicious old traditions and create new ones."


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